Ask Tom: Rants, raves and questions on the DC dining scene

Apr 06, 2016

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema entertains your dining questions, rants and raves.

Find all of Tom Sietsema's Washington Post work at washingtonpost.com/tomsietsema.

Hi there - I had a terrible dining experience at a newer restaurant in my neighborhood (horrible service) which has been profiled by the Post, and I let management know about this via a Facebook message. They said that they would love to make it up to me and that they would send me a gift card in the mail, so I provide my information. A few weeks pass and I receive nothing in the mail. When I follow up, I am told that one of their managers has been diagnosed with cancer and that they have "bigger issues" to deal with. They also say that they'll put it in the mail that day (it's been a week since that message and I haven't received anything, but I have also stopped expecting them to live up to their promises). This whole situation seems inappropriate... am I overreacting?

A cancer diagnosis definitely trumps a delayed gift card, but a restaurant shouldn't put a promise to a customer on indefinite hold, either.  In general, I think a week or so is an appropriate amount of time for a diner to get a response from a business. 

 

This restaurant sounds either too busy or disinterested in winning your patronage. You can either chalk up your experience to an off night and return, giving it another chance, or spend your money in one of the many exciting newcomers on the scene, maybe the exciting new Mexican outpost, Espita Mezcaleria in Shaw, my review subject in the Magazine this Sunday.

 

CHEF NEWS:  There's a fresh face in the kitchen at Ardeo + Bardeo and it belongs to Kelly Bunkers. He comes to the Cleveland Park property from Logan Circle, where he was executive sous chef at the popular Le Diplomate. His earlier credits include L'Atelier De Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, where he served as chef de partie.

 

"Although I'm just getting my feet wet at Ardeo," the chef emailed me yesterday, "I am fortunate enough to be starting my tenure at the best time of the year."  His additions to the menu include Norwegian cod with romesco sauce and broccolini leaves; a pizza dressed with ramps and morels, among other spring treasures; plus a burger and chicken that he says he's  proud to offer. 

 

CHANGING OF THE GUARD: Campono across from the Kennedy Center is in new hands: the owners of the late Willow in Arlington have taken over for veteran chef Bob Kinkead. Here's the scoop, from my colleague Becky Krystal.

 

 

Good chilly Wednesday, everyone. Tell me what's on your mind today.

If you had your pick, would you take the kitchen table or a regular table in the dining room? Tough problem to have, I know.

You know what? I've never dined in the kitchen proper -- and I'm not sure I care to, given the sumptuousness of the several dining rooms within the Inn at Little Washington, my favorite of which is the slender gallery overlooking the garden.

We recently had kind of a strange experience at Menomale and I wonder how you would have handled it. Happy hour ends at 7:00 there. We arrive at about 6:50, and it takes them 3 or 4 minutes to seat us. Our waiter comes by quickly at about 6:56 and says he’ll be right back. He comes back at 7:03, and points us to the happy hour specials on the drink menu. I ask if it’s still happy hour. He asks me what time it is, and I take out my phone and tell him it’s7:03. He replies, “oh, sorry, happy hour ended at 7:00 and our computer system won’t allow me to override it. You should have told me you needed to get your drink order in when I first walked by.” I was kind of surprised by his response, but wasn’t going to make a big deal about saving $4 on two drinks. What do you think? For what it’s worth, the service continued like this throughout the meal – he couldn’t multitask, so he would do one thing for a table, then move on to the next thing for a different table, and so on.

Because 1) you waited to be seated, 2) your waiter couldn't multi-task and 3) he actually directed your attention to the happy hour menu even though it was 7:03 p.m., your party merited the lower prices. If only on principle, I would have raised the issue with a manager at Menomale (Computers can be overridden.)

Is there a class or type of restaurant you generally don't like? I think that being a restaurant reviewer might be a "fun" job, but I feel that I would limit myself to the types of restaurants I like. I am not a fan of sports bars and expensive steakhouses. I was never exposed to Asian foods while growing up, so I don't visit a lot of Chinese, Korean, or Indian restaurants. I find I appreciate a restaurant more for the value and tend towards places where I can get a meal for $20-30. I would probably rate a place like the Inn at Little Washington low based on the price alone. It is not something in my normal budget for a meal.

The only kind of restaurant I don't care for is a bad one. Otherwise, I'm game for just about anything, a point I've tried to make over the years by covering the gamut, including simple cafes in Korean spas, molten-hot chicken in Nashville  -- even the food in a strip club (while I was covering the dining scene for the San Francisco Chronicle).

 

As I've said many times before, one of the requirements of the job, besides a good appetite, is a willingness to transcend personal taste.

As a loyal reader of your chat who has traveled to Kansas City regularly throughout my life, and whose family has been in the KC area since the Civil War, I was deeply offended by your criticism of the Kansas City food scene in last week's chat. While Kansas City is not overflowing with great restaurants, there are certainly good places to dine. I don't know who steered you to LC's for barbeque, but I have never even heard of that establishment. I suggest you try Rosedale BBQ on Southwest Boulevard. I also recommend Bluestem, with James Beard Award-winning chef Colby Garrelts, and Blue Bird Bistro. Disappointed chat reader, Washington, DC

Sorry, maybe I was a little flip in my response, and granted, I was only in Kansas City about 50 hours. I assume there are good things to say about the restaurant scene, but I have to be honest: even the lauded Bluestem under-whelmed a table of six of us (all food professionals).

Hi Tom, long time listener first time caller. After reading your glowing review a few weeks ago, I'm sending my parents to Kinship for an anniversary dinner next week. With just the two of them they can't order the full menu, so are there any dishes that you would consider 'must tries'? Thanks!

What a lovely gift. My review offers multiple must-tries. They include the torchon of white mushrooms, veal sweetbreads any style, a blue fin tuna sampler, roast chicken for two -- possibly the best in the city -- and the apple confit for dessert.

You probably can't go into much detail, but do you ever put on disguises when you visit restaurants? I loved Ruth Reichl's book Garlic and Sapphires in which she writes about her life as the food critic for the New York Times and the many disguises she would put on before dining out. What a life!

The last time I publicly wrote about going undercover was when I re-reviewed Range for the fall dining guide several years ago. Honestly, it takes a lot of time, an hour or more, to convincingly disguise oneself and while I've done it at most of the high-end places over the years, I mostly visit as myself these days. Not that I haven't thought about going as someone else, though!

This is why you are a civilian and will never be a restaurant critic. Everyone thinks it would be fun to eat out for a living, but few people are really equipped to do it.

The hardest part, day in and day out, is not so much the eating but the talking. Being a restaurant critic is an incredibly social job.

I'm travelling to the Charlotte area in a few weeks, and was wondering if you could recommend any good places to eat there. Thanks!

My last trip to Charlotte was ahead of the Democratic convention four years ago. Here's what I liked then.

A good waiter says I can still get you the Happy Hour prices on your first drink and takes your order and has the manager ring it up at those prices. Its not that difficult. Very few in any restaurants would have an issue with this. The waiter was an incompetent jerk. Thats the problem with millennials they cant problem solve unless its involves their phone.

Hey, hey, hey now! Let's not paint an entire generation of servers with the same brush.

Short of shaving that magnificent head of hair, I don't see how you could disguise yourself!

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha (and so on)

On Hank's Pasta Bar, I agree with you on the food -- some of the best pasta around. But what's up with those portions? I could have consumed three servings, at least. That and the industrial interior they went with (from a formerly charming Italian ristorante) doesn't make me want to return. Hopefully you'll give us a few more Old Town tips (as it's been a few years between your Alexandria reviews...)!

Yours is the sixth or seventh gripe I've heard about the small pasta portions at the new Hank's.  Let's hope the owner sees this post and throws a few more noodles our way.  As for the decor, I rather like it, especially that fun room in the very back.

While I agree that the server was mostly to blame, is it common to try to get in on Happy Hour by arriving at the establishment 10 minutes before Happy Hour ends? If it's that important (to merit a question to you) shouldn't the diner have planned to arrive earlier?

Well, yeah, but it sounds as if the server bungled several thing several times -- even pointing out the bargain after 7 p.m. Which is why I would have said something to a superior.

What do you think? http://www.businessinsider.com/best-restaurants-in-america-according-to-opentable-2016-4

It's an impressive list.  I'm especially pleased to see Blue Hill at Stone Barns and Sushi Nakazawa on the roster, along with the more expected Vetri in Philadelphia and Daniel in New York. There are surprises from Hawaii and Charleston therein, too.

Any thoughts on a downtownish restaurant that is toddler-friendly?

As in, a restaurant with a changing table? A kid's menu? A loud dining room, so any crying from your bundle of joy doesn't detract from other diners' meals? Off the top of my head, I think Matchbox in Chinatown or on 14th St. NW, qualifies.

I'm looking to learn how to cook, so I just purchased Patrick o'Connell's cookbook "Refined American Cuisine". Maybe I'm biting a bit more than I can chew. Is there any cookbook you prefer for a budding cook?

Wow -- do you have sous chefs at home to help you out? I'm inclined to point you to some oldies but goodies, including "Joy of Cooking" and anything by Chris Kimball, formerly of Cook's Illustrated.

Not to be judgmental, but when did this chat become about airing grievances with restaurant staff? I just find it baffling that people are asking a nationally known restaurant critic about missing a happy hour deal by 3 minutes! What's done is done.

I'm happy to accept any and all questions in this forum, actually.  But I think I'm done with the happy hour post.

I couldn't disagree more - I love the portion sizes at Hank's. It's nice to be able to get a pasta meal without Maggiano's size portions. I like being able to get a meal there before going out somewhere and not feeling like a bloated whale, or having to feel bad about throwing food away b/c you're not going straight home and don't want to cart around a takeout container. It also means you can enjoy an appetizer or dessert without stuffing yourself. I got the bolognese this past weekend and it was delightful and plenty filling. Hank's - please don't change a thing, or just add a little surcharge as an option for people that want an extra portion.

Maybe Hank's could sell pieces of pasta the way seafood joints peddle oysters -- a buck a raviolo or three strands of spaghetti with sauce?

I walked by the Tabard this week and remembered dining in the courtyard. Can you give a brief recap of what happened to make Tabard a less desireable place to dine?

A family feud resulted in some of the most talented staff leaving what was once one of my favorite restaurants. It's a shame. I love the lounge with the fireplace in winter and the brick courtyard in summer. But today's Tabard Inn is a shadow of what it once was.

Uh, service is one of the significant components of a dining experience -- along with food, setting, location and price (can you think of other major factors)?

And whether -- and how -- an establishment takes reservations, as illustrated today in a great Food section story by my colleague Maura Judkis.

Their website does not reflect any of the new dishes that are written about in Becky's piece. I'm always baffled when restaurants don't have up to date websites to coincide with press releases, new stories, etc. It's the first place people look.

Yep.

When the time comes for the bill, include a note: When I miss out on a modest discount due to slow service my tip computation is reduced by XX%. Sorry, this system cannot be overridden.

Ouch! (But funny.)

What DC chef should take their talents to a fast casual concept? Seems to be the trend these days - who do you think could do it well?

I would be first in line if  Vikram Sunderam of Rasika acclaim started offering fast-casual Indian in Washington.

I second the Chris Kimball suggestion, particularly The New Best Recipe, which includes many recipes for simple, popular dishes and dissects them to help the reader understand why the recipe works--helpful for learning how to cook.

Thanks for the feedback. And for sweets, my bible is "Classic Home Desserts" by the late Richard Sax.

Standing and applauding - thank you Tom. I'm a millennial (technically) and I love my phone. and problem solving. AND making people happy and having my company act decently. (And when my aunt passed 14 years ago, it was said "she could solve any problem with a cup of coffee and her cell phone" - so really...not a new device anymore people...)

I'm smiling. Thanks for chiming in, whippersnapper.

Hi Tom, I've read your great reviews in the past about Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, but wondering if you have any other favorites in the city? Any in or around the Harbor East would be appreciated, as I'll be near there mid-week in a few weeks. Thanks!

You know what's interesting? Aromes, with a reasonably-priced tasting menu by a talented French chef in a spare dining room in Hampden. It's also BYOB.

I've been fortunate to have dined in the kitchen at the Inn a Little Washington a number of times. And I love it. It's more expensive -- there's a table charge -- but you also can have Chef O'Connell design a menu for your entire party rather than the set menu(s).

But even that "set" menu is pretty darn impressive!

Cocktail serving is possibly the worst job in the industry since there is no structure to service! Just pure unadulterated chaos!

Clearly, you have not been to a bar created by Derek Brown or Adam Bernbach or Todd Thrasher or Gina Chersevani or ... gosh, a dozen other ace drinks enthusiasts around town, all of them pushing the city toward sensational sipping.

Hi Tom- I read food blogs, chats, and message boards and it always astounds me when someone is visiting from somewhere else and they ask "Where can I get the best NY style pizza or Philly cheesesteak?". Why do people go somewhere and seek out food items that a place is not known for? Why do people who have guests from say France or China want to take these people to French or Chinese places? I would not go to Rome and ask for the best BBQ or go to Chicago and want a mission style burrito. Maybe this is just me.

I'm with you, but not everyone necessarily wants A Very Special DC Experience. And sometimes people are saddled with companions who, despite Washington's colorful dining scene, want what they want even if it's not something at which the city excels.  (Okay, it drives me nuts, but my significant other goes to, like, the WORST sports bar for chicken wings when there are, like, a FLOCK of better options out there. But who am I to say he can't eat what he likes?)

 

And on that messy note, I bid you all a great rest of the week. Let's do this again next Wednesday, same time.

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Tom Sietsema
Weaned on a beige buffet a la "Fargo" in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. In thinner days, he was a critic for Microsoft Corp.'s sidewalk.com and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; and a food reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle.

This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the '80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section's recipes. That's how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.

He covers the local scene in his Dining, First Bite and Dish columns; keeps tabs on the world at large in his Postcard From Tom column and contributes tasty morsels to the Going Out Guide blog.
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